California Drought Leaves Water Sector Thirsty For Innovation

I live in Berkeley and can’t remember the last time we used our raincoats and umbrellas. Even if you don’t live here, you probably know that California has a big water problem as the drought enters its fourth year. Lawmakers and large corporations recognize the gravity of the situation and have implemented mandatory water cuts and launched water saving campaigns. Never before has there been this much attention focused on water and the urgent need for innovative solutions. However, investments have not (yet) followed the media attention. As the drought in California carries on, the water innovation community needs to seize this opportunity to shape its future.


We have mandated a 25 percent cut in water usage, but we lack basic data and software systems to manage water. In some instances, utilities have asked customers to reduce their consumption but are billing those same customers on a flat-fee basis and providing no data on usage. Unlike the power sector, the water industry has not deployed smart meters at scale. Sub-meters that provide detailed usage data within a facility are needed but sadly not common. When data does exist, the quality is often so poor that utilities and customers feel ill-equipped to make decisions. For example, many water utilities automatically concede billing disputes because they lack confidence in their data to troubleshoot or substantiate the bill. This results in much wasted time, money, and water.

The good news is the technology exists today to make the water sector much smarter. Well-established meters, sensors, controls and software can help utilities, industry, and consumers manage water much more effectively. Companies like FATHOM have created SaaS products for utilities to better manage their data, helping them track usage, engage customers, and improve operations. Other companies like Banyan Water have created solutions to help commercial customers save water. Similar efforts are taking shape in heavy industries with intense water usage. For example, Digital H2O developed software and analytics to help oil and gas companies manage water across their operations.

Water-Less Food

In California, agriculture uses a significant portion of water used in the state. The sector has been especially hard-hit by the drought and continues to be in the spotlight. Growers and food producers are in critical need of water as well as solutions to drive efficiency without hurting production. Solutions range from software to smarter irrigation to agricultural biotechnology. Start-ups like PowWow Energy – a SaaS start-up using energy data to detect water leaks in irrigation systems – and mOasis – a developer of a soil amendment product to improve water efficiency – provide solutions directly to growers. Downstream, large corporations like Coca-Cola and General Mills have been implementing water efficiency efforts in their facilities and supply chains. Nestle has responded to the California drought by installing new filtration systems to reuse waste from condensed milk for cleaning and cooling.

Reuse and Energy Recovery

California is the land of innovation, so I’m confident we will develop innovative models. Water reuse is being embraced across the state. Orange County has had a water reuse plant in operation since 2008 and has just increased capacity by more than 40 percent. Start-ups have expanded upon water reuse technology – Cambrian Innovation, for example, has developed a product that simultaneously cleans industrial wastewater and generates biogas. The drought has shown us that we must look at wastewater – both municipal and industrial– as another resource to be utilized. Ostara creates a slow-release fertilizer from municipal and agricultural waste streams. Policy makers and investors are taking a closer look at desalination with an open mind. More creative solutions cannot be overlooked. For example, a few startups are exploring how to create more efficient financial markets for water. Others are trying to encourage us to replace our lawns with turf. It’s not clear to me which products or solutions will win and have the most impact. What’s clear is the drought has highlighted the need for action.

Quenching our Need for Water Innovation

WIS_Transparent_HexThe California drought presents a unique opportunity for established and innovative solutions to emerge and scale. The water innovation community must rally to identify and implement changes that will benefit the sector, the state, and the world as a whole. With this in mind, we will be hosting our 4th annual Water Innovation Summit on September 22-23 in Berkeley, California. The two-day Summit will host 100 of the top water sector industry executives, start-ups, and other stakeholders. We will use the Summit to discuss the innovation opportunities present in the current water scarcity crisis as well as possible solutions for water-intense industries.